October 25, 2014
Masha Berlinskaya cut off her long light brown braid, found a flak vest, left her Master’s Program at Kyiv Mohyla Academy, and joined the military frontlines. In the ATO zone, she became an expert in aerial reconnaissance and came under attack many times during air flights.
In her year-old pictures, the 26-year-old Maria Berlinskaya looks like a usual pretty girl. The only difference is that her grayish-green eyes are unusually serious and her face doesn’t have an ounce of make-up. But the change that occurred within the girl during these months is amazing. Cropped “hedgehog” on the head, dull precise movements, stubborn chin line… War, to a greater or lesser extent, changes everyone. But girls who live away from Luhansk and Donetsk regions experience it remotely: they watch the news, call friends from Eastern regions, and sometimes send money for army needs. And only a few quit a peaceful life, work, school, hobbies and family, and take up the gun.
One of these girls, Masha Berlinskaya, who recently came for a short brake from the ATO zone, talks about her most vivid memory from the front: “We were driving through empty, deserted, almost extinct cities. Local men and women, barely seeing the military equipment and weapons, were hiding in their homes. And only the children, pointing fingers on Ukrainian symbols, on a yellow-blue flag, were waving in a friendly way and following us. In those seconds we knew what and whom we are willing to fight and risk our lives for… ”
For me, Maidan became a kind of a vaccine: arriving to the front, I wasn’t afraid of blood and fire anymore.
- I had a strange feeling, Maria Berlinskaya said thoughtfully. – Two years ago, long before Maidan and ATO, I wrote a poem called “Soon there will be war.” I remember I was surprised myself as there were no signs of trouble then. Recently I accidently remembered about that poem and wondered again about how many things have happened during this time, how we all have changed! Previously, I had lived quietly in my native Kamyanets-Podilsk, studied at the University in the History Department and played the guitar. I was also inviting musicians from Poland, Czech Republic and other countries to organize their concerts. Together with my friend Andriy Zoynyy, we were conducting an international music festival of street art called “Republic” for four years in a row. The idea was excellent: we were inviting famous musicians (such as Lyapis Trubetskoy or Skryabin) with their bands and the tickets were available to the public for pennies. But since we had public gatherings close to ten thousand people, it was quite a hefty sum of money. We made sure to spend a portion of it on paint and on artists who painted the houses in Kamyanets. I’m so glad that children in our city now don’t have to go past the gray concrete buildings but instead, they see beautiful pictures on them instead, paintings that won’t be washed off for years. This way, kids can grow up with creative and cheerful personalities.
- In Eastern Ukraine, children aren’t this way now for sure…
- No, they are the same. Unlike the adults, they are not shy and afraid to express their feelings. When they waved their hands and screamed with joy because they saw the Ukrainian flag, I had a lump in my throat. I was going to the ATO zone and, of course, expected to see all the horrors of war. But the sight of extinct towns really shook me…
- How did you come up with the idea to go to the front?
- I can’t stand on the sidelines when the fate of my country is being determined. To sit in the library or a coffee shop when our guys are dying by thousands? I was also there at Maidan from the very first day – I was also one of those students dispersed by “Berkut” near the pillar. Over the months of revolution we had to do everything from making sandwiches to making “Molotov cocktails”. I was pulling out bodies of the dead during the night when the House of Trade Unions was on fire, I was wounded several times with rubber bullets but fortunately vital organs weren’t affected. Miraculously, I stayed alive: on February 19th I went to the hospital with bilateral otitis, sinusitis, and bronchitis – consequences of the cold weather. If it weren’t for that, I definitely would have been in the center of the city together with our guys and most likely under the bullets of snipers near hotel “Ukraina”. In general, Maidan became a kind of a vaccine for me: arriving to the front, I wasn’t afraid of blood, shootings, injury, pain, and the sight of people who died.
- Was it that easy for a young girl to get to the front?
- Not at all. At first, I tried unsuccessfully to join the volunteer battalion. I was told politely that they would call back and… no one called. Then I decided it was enough sitting idly. It was time to act. I was going to find myself a bulletproof vest and go to ATO on my own and figure things out once I was there. But I was lucky: a very nice volunteer, Diana Makarova, gave me a bulletproof vest, brought me to the commander of the battalion “Aidar”, who agreed to meet me in the East. I went through special training in Kyiv beforehand, and learned aerial reconnaissance. I love this profession – I don’t kill the enemies, I’m saving the lives of our guys.
At war you have to realize that every day you are walking on a razor’s edge.
- Was it hard for you as a humanitarian to master all the technical skills?
- Desire is the key. If something wasn’t clear I searched on the Internet. It took five days to manage an unmanned aerial vehicle. Drones are much more difficult to master. I’m still learning. After my partner, Lyosha, and I learned how to perform tasks on aerial reconnaissance independently, we traveled to the ATO zone. First by train to Kharkiv, then by bus to Luhansk region where we met “aidarovtsi” in a car.There are only a few drones at the front, so sometimes you have to take off on a mission in the cockpits of conventional aircrafts which are often not adapted to aerial reconnaissance.
- Weren’t they surprised to see a girl arrive?
- First of all, several women are fighting in our battalion. One of them is only twenty years old and she’s already the most experienced fighter. She was in one of the most complicated situations, is an excellent shooter and commands a division of twenty men who respect and obey her. And second of all, people didn’t always immediately recognize me as a girl. I remember during one fight I moved to the side to look over the data we filmed during the flight. Not far from me, under a bridge, there was a soldier with a gun, keeping defense. We exchanged a few words and he asked suspiciously, “Hey, man, why is your voice so strange?”. Instead of answering, I took off my helmet and goggles. He was amazed, “So you’re a girl? What’s your name? ” , “Masha” , “and I’m Pasha. Do you want a vitamin?”. I nodded. He fumbled in his pocket and offered, “Marry me. And this is my pre-wedding gift to you.” And threw me a pack of “Undevita”.
- Maybe he was flirting this way? I heard from the guys that it’s very difficult to be without female companionship for so many months, so they have a special interest towards the girls around them.
- I wouldn’t say so. Men treat me and other women as comrades with an important common goal. They don’t cry on our shoulders, don’t flirt and certainly don’t behave immodestly. During our stay in ATO there was only one soldier who allowed himself a pretty vulgar hint towards me. But it was an exception to the rule. With regards to marriage proposals at war, where you live every day as the last one, nobody jokes with these things. Pasha proposed seriously. I hope he is alive and well. And … I’ll find him for sure.
- How did you get used to the everyday difficulties at war? No bath, no hot water, no proper food, no amenities. And on top of everything it’s cold…
- Conditions depend on your status. It’s one thing if you are a soldier and another if you are a commander. Specialists (like aerial scouts) are treated carefully. In contrast to the guys, who regardless of the weather and the temperature outside, spend months living in dugouts and trenches, we were had great conditions – we were able to live in a separate house, which formerly belonged to one of the oligarchs. So there were no problems with living conditions. The food was also ok – porridge and stew was always there. You can live that way. But what was really hard to get used to was to sleep in full combat gear, uniform, ankle boots and a flak jacket. It’s impossible to relax, especially when you are constantly fired at. For the first few days I constantly jumped up when I heard shots. Then I got used to it. I remember we even joked with the guys when we were fired at by “Grad” at night, “Damned Russians! They won’t let us sleep.” In general, soldiers don’t lose their sense of humor even in the most desperate situations. When I first came to ATO, the “Aidar” battalion stayed on the border – one-on-one with the enemy. The regular army had been withdrawn. I was asking the guys, ‘Well, is our army coming back?” , “Of course it’s coming back, towards Kharkiv.”
In fact, a strong nervous system and endurance are essential at war. We aren’t crying and lamenting when our guys are dying. I remember once “aidarovtsi” shot a Russian sniper and his body was given in exchange for the bodies of forty of our fallen boys. We gave Russians the body and in return were given pieces that we had to literally shovel together. Out of the forty fallen patriots we were able to “collect” and identify only four. They were put in coffins and taken to the cemetery. In such situations you have to struggle to control yourself. Otherwise, you can lose your mind or commit suicide – these things also happen. At war you have to realize that every day you are walking on the edge.
Putin will take precisely as much as we will surrender to him.
- I heard that during the first combat mission terrorists shot at the plane you were flying.
- This didn’t happen only once. Although, of course, I remember my first flight very well. We had to fly on an airplane because our drones were out of order, and sending a group of scouts blindly into hostile territory would mean certain death. So I flew with the pilot on a semi-sport plane that wasn’t intended for aerial reconnaissance at all. I was discouraged from flying because the machine had already been fired at more than once. But I still decided to fly, even though I knew there was a risk. We flew low – twenty meters from the treetops. It was very dangerous, but necessary, first, to get quality shots of enemy targets, and second, so that in the event of enemy fire the pilot could hide behind the trees. We got detected. First, the plane was riddled through by gunfire and during our next mission we were fired at from a machine gun. Only thanks to the skilled pilot and the grace of God we survived and completed the task. We always pray before departures.
- But have the drones been repaired at least?
- There is still a dramatic lack of drones. There has to be more than one per battalion, at least a few dozens so each unit could conduct reconnaissance operations without risking the lives of the pilot and the scout. Now we came to Kyiv and our battalion commander Sergiy Melnychuk is solving financial issues with Kyiv mechanics so we could purchase drones. Meanwhile, I have some time to fit in a bit of study and see my parents.
- How did your parents react to your going to fight?
- They had known about it for a long time. Before each risky mission, I called Kamyanets-Podilsk to find out how they were doing and to tell them they were the best in the world, and that I loved them very much. And the questions about where was I were always answered that I was in the classroom. My mom knew my character and suspected that I could be fighting. She was anxiously asking, “My dear daughter, I hope you aren’t going to the ATO zone?”. To calm her down I replied that I didn’t intend to. My parents learned the truth only now, when I arrived to Kyiv. They react the same way any parents would with their children at the war zone, they cry, worry and ask me to stay safe.
With great sadness and pain I want to note that this damned war and Putin’s propaganda accomplished the worst: they sew hatred in the hearts of people towards their compatriots and destroyed whole families. I have relatives and friends in Eastern Ukraine, we used to communicate well and to be keenly interested about each other’s lives. Now, they don’t want to talk to us and they see us as enemies. You know, if it were only about the land of Donetsk, I would have never gone to war. But the point is that Putin doesn’t need Crimea or Donetsk. He needs all of Ukraine. And he will take as much as we will surrender to him. If we stopped and laid down our arms, Russian troops would be in Kyiv tomorrow.
It’s very difficult for our guys now. The state doesn’t even provide necessities, everything is on the shoulders of volunteers who are getting tired after months of hard work. This is Putin’s only hope, that the Ukrainian army runs out of ammunition and the soldiers freeze in the trenches this winter. We can’t let that happen, because so much blood was poured, so many lives were lost in the fight for integrity and freedom of our Motherland! I ask all Ukrainians through your newspaper, each one of you must now become a volunteer, everyone must help the army, transfer money, warm clothes and food to the front. This is the only way to save our country and to win.